a tale by Eugene Marckx
As a boy Wade did not know any dancing or singing. His people on the slopes of Black Mountain did not dance or sing. They lived without these foolish excesses. If they were trading goods with a strange tribe, and those people began to dance or sing, his people always turned away. The boy wondered at this shyness, but then he would forget until day-to-day life was broken by someone’s death. They always burned the body on the western plateau of the mountain, and Wade could hear mixed in with the roar of the funeral fire the people humming. Their singing grew and faded with the fire.
At no other time did he hear singing. In growing up he took in with his food a bitter sadness everyone felt, a sadness borne on the face of each mother seeing her baby for the first time—as if some longstanding promise were broken again—and in the faces of the father and elders huddling to come up with a name for the child. And yet for all of this burden of bitterness no one could remember the source of their sadness.
But along with the bitter wind of those black basalt slopes Wade also felt brief breaks of warmth. His older sister Moira gave him a smile whenever she saw him. And Wade took this in with his food as well. Seeing one of her smiles he sometimes felt a great urge to jump high over the black stones.
And then one day she was not there. Not anywhere. He looked and looked over the cold slopes. He whined and bawled to get his parents to tell what happened. They tightened their lips. In the whole tribe no one said a word. It was as if Moira had joined that long-forgotten source of sadness. But Wade could not forget.
His father cut firewood from the forest and hauled it up the slope on a donkey each day for the people. Wade had always helped, and as he grew into his broad shoulders he took on more of the work. But this day he refused. He took an ax and killed the donkey. The animal laughed and lay down, shivered and went stiff. The old man stared at the blood pouring from the donkey’s head. Then he turned to his son.
“Your blow may be the death of us all.”
He took the ax and led his son to the chief. As punishment the chief’s men lashed a large stone onto Wade’s back. He was to carry that stone on his back all through the winter. Yet he still must help his father bring firewood up from the forest. As his father cut, Wade hauled loads of wood on a drag uphill several times a day. By itself this was grueling work, and the stone made it worse. His anger seethed under the stone. He thought of running away, but where would he go?
The horsemen around the chief cut up the donkey’s carcass for their hunting dogs. They hunted roe deer, meat to be roasted or dried, and the skins tanned for leather. Sometimes the men brought in a bear. Then everyone feasted. Wade longed to ride a horse, to roam the hills and mountains. On rare days the horsemen brought back things of beauty. Where did they find ivory and gold? What could they trade for such things?
His mother wore a silver bracelet that was handed down from her grandmother. Men and women around the chief wore gold, silver, copper and precious stones. Wade did not want any of these. He wanted a horse. With a horse he could roam free. His eyes were greedy for what lay beyond Black Mountain. But each day he woke up with a stone on his back. He braved the wind to haul firewood along the trail that he tracked again and again. And as winter passed, moon after moon, the stone felt less heavy.
But winter was hard on his parents. At night even with extra wood on the fire they were cold. At last when the stone was let off his back Wade found he could easily haul large stacks of wood from the forest. But his father could only carry the ax and wedges. One evening as he climbed, the old man began shaking in his knees. The next day he stayed by the fire.
Wade worked hard to bring wood for the people, but his mother complained that his father would not go out on the slope to gather roots and leaves for their soup. Wade heard their bitter words back and forth in the night. He began to laugh at them, but in his laughter he heard the sound of that donkey he’d killed.
Not long afterward his father died in his sleep. When the body was burned in a funeral fire on the western plateau Wade heard again the humming of the people mixed in with the fire’s roar. Yet he looked up toward the high ridge of Black Mountain where there was a gap. To him the singing also seemed to come from the wind over the gap. In the evening he sat with his mother and asked her again what happened to Moira.
The old woman stared at him in the firelight. “You liked her instead of me.”
He winced. “Moira always had a smile for me. Did you ever in your life smile?”
“I lost three babies before Moira. Then I lost her as well—to you. When she and you were happy together I got hard on her. She stopped smiling, and then she left us.”
“Anyone wanting to die goes up to the high ridge. She jumped into the gap.”
Just now his hands were ready to choke this woman, but what would that do?
With sad eyes his mother fingered her silver bracelet. “I wanted to give her this.”
“Did she want it?”
His mother left him to live with other widows. Wade kept hauling firewood. Young men of the tribe bargained for horses and dogs. They went out hunting for days and days. He was stronger than any of them, but what did he have to trade for a horse? He was poor and kept his own fire. Finding a bride was far out of reach. Seasons came and went, but no one forgot that he had once carried a stone on his back. And they knew as well that his sister had jumped into the gap.
One morning he heard that his mother had suddenly died. When they burned the body he saw for once all the charred bones in among the black basalt on the plateau. That evening the husband of his mother’s cousin brought him her silver bracelet.
“She wanted you to have this.”
Wade began to sob. He could not stop. Later, still weeping he saw the filigree design on the silver. As cold and hard as she had been, she had sent him her prized gift.
Not long afterward the horsemen rode back to the mountain, their horses all in a lather, leading other horses that carried big baskets of grain, spilling they were so full.
“This grain will last through winter.”
The horsemen were heroes. After the feasting and boasting had played out, Wade began to talk with one of the older horsemen.
“You might want something precious now that you have a lot more horses.”
“What’s this? Your mother’s bracelet? My wife has bracelets and rings.”
“But your daughter?”
“Ah, but it’s hardly worth a horse.”
“Not one of those half-wild pack horses you brought in?”
The horseman hesitated. Wade took the bracelet and began to seek out another horseman. Then the man called him back.
“You don’t have eyes for my daughter, do you?”
“No, just for your pack horse.”
The man fingered the bright piece. “Best ride him till he knows you.”
“That I will.” Wade leaped on, and the horse trembled. All at once it galloped across the slope past the western plateau and down through rolling lowlands, away from Black Mountain. He was gasping, clinging to the horse’s mane and holding the thin leather halter. The horse ran up a set of rising hills and down the other side, on and on. At last the animal stopped by a stream. Wade got off, the halter tight in his grasp, and the two of them drank from the stream. But the horse was not shy of him now. It grazed on bunch grass nearby. Wade mounted and rode in the way of a horseman, pressing with his knees to guide the animal into the evening. Then they rested under the stars.
At dawn Wade turned his horse toward Black Mountain. As he drew near he saw smoke rising in the distance, and on the breeze he heard thin cries. He rode steadily, yet he knew he was too late. When he arrived all the people had been killed and everything scattered or destroyed. So he began to pile the bodies on a drag and with his horse haul them up to the western plateau. But one he found was still alive, a little girl, her head swollen and bleeding and both her legs broken. He tucked sleeping robes around her and gave her sips of water. Then he finished hauling the bodies away.
But when he came back to her there were hunting dogs circling in. He drove them off and kept a fire by her side. On the plateau dogs were quarreling long into night. Beside him the little girl grew hot with fever. He tried to feed her drops of water, but her arms fluttered outward and she kept calling for her mother. Later he heard dogs just beyond the fire scratching themselves. And then his horse ran off.
The girl moaned and whispered without sense. Near dawn she stopped breathing. He felt her warmth drain away. Half numb, he carried her little body out to the western plateau. Dogs lay around. He placed the girl with the other bodies, all of them in disarray. He threw rocks at the dogs to send them off. When he had piled the bodies together again he found enough dry wood to start a fire. He fed that fire with wood from the forest through the day and night. And in the middle of night he heard a humming from the fire’s roar, but he had no strength to lift his voice for these dead.
With the rising sun he wanted to bathe. He knew of a pool in the forest, but each step downward made him dizzy. He found himself climbing, stumbling toward the high ridge and the gap, where Moira had jumped. Maybe it was time to follow her. As he climbed he heard voices on the wind. Their humming grew clearer. Had his sister heard them and been drawn to them? He tried to think it was only wind coming down over the gap, but no, the breeze was behind him, as if it too were urging him on toward the ridge.
Yet when he stood above the gap the voices stopped. Wade stared down into the shadows. Far below something moved—and laughed in a donkey laugh. He nearly fell off in shock. But the donkey climbed upward from ledge to ledge. Just below him it halted and laughed again—he-haw!
Wade crept down and slipped onto its back. The donkey descended by switchbacks and narrow crevices into that darkest night. When they were in pitch dark the donkey laughed again—he-haw—and bucked Wade off. Down, down through empty space he tumbled—and was caught, upside-down in a tangle of tree branches. For a moment he tried to get free, but they gave way so quickly and he was afraid of falling farther. He stayed upside-down in those brittle branches, sleeping and waking in pain. How long? It was endless.
But the donkey came clopping up from below. It laughed and broke the branches until Wade tumbled into the dirt, so sore and weak that he had to lean on the animal to get to his feet. Holding onto the donkey’s stiff mane, he stumbled along as the animal led him. And light came, not from above or afar, but a dim luster from the donkey itself.
Then he heard squabbling voices, and in the half-light he saw shadows moving back and forth. The donkey spoke.
“These dead don’t want to know they are dead.”
Wade remembered that voice. “Donkey, you sound like my sister Moira.”
“Oh, yes, little brother, but I inhabit this donkey you killed. Remember the stone you carried?”
“That I will never forget.”
“Just the same, I inhabit this donkey until a balance is gained. But stay close. These dead people think they are still alive. They go back and forth pretending things are fine. They stumble about getting their bones all mixed up, and they will get you mixed up too. They forget what parts are missing, but in this dark they go on pretending.”
“Moira, how do you know?”
“Little brother, I’ve been listening to their excuses a long time.”
Then the dead called out, “Come here, donkey. Come make us laugh!”
But the donkey left them behind, and Wade followed it downward into a deep trembling of thunder on all sides.
“Be careful, little brother. Don’t go near these angry ones. They are trying to break open the earth. If they catch you they will tear you apart.”
“What do they want?”
“They want their horses. They want to ride out and pillage and destroy. But they cannot even stand. They lie around rumbling.”
And one of them called out. “Here’s that donkey. Ha! I got hold of it!”
But the donkey kicked away their bones.
“Aw! Aw!” A great rumbling swept through the ground in waves.
“Hold onto my mane,” the donkey said, and Wade followed as they descended away from the angry dead toward sounds of whispers that softly moaned. He heard no humming in their moans, only faint whispers.
“These dead are trying to pray. They believe that if they make enough prayers they will come alive again, even if only for one more day. But they are dead. A breeze passes through their teeth in whispers, a breeze that you and I make as we go by.”
The donkey led on, and Wade felt a sharp chill as they went down. The footing turned icy, and the donkey slowed its pace. “We must not stop here. These ones are silent, frozen in place. They cannot move, and so their bones have gathered ice crystals.”
Wade caught glimmers of their bones lodged in the ice.
“Whoever stops here will get stuck,” the donkey said, “frozen to the ice.”
But Wade just now lost his footing, lost his grasp of the donkey, and he slipped and fell forward, facedown.
The donkey moved around him. “Take hold of my tail!”
But his cheek had already stuck fast to the ice. The cold invaded him and drained away the life. All of him froze in place.
The donkey bit on his hair and pulled. Gobs of hair came away, and nothing more. So the donkey, also slipping, stepped far from him. “I cannot help you.”
Wade heard his sister leaving. “Moira, you used to have a smile for me. Is there no bit of brightness you can leave me now?”
Then he heard the donkey laugh in the distance. But its laughter—he-haw, he-haw—came out in such a heartbreak that Wade, stuck as he was, began to weep and sob. His tears flowed down his face and thawed his cheek, and as he sobbed he came loose from the ice, came onto his knees. As his tears kept flowing there came more tears from those frozen dead nearby. With the donkey’s cry the darkness began to soften. Those long pent-up tears of the dead flowing now over dirt and stone formed a braided stream. Wade heard it, but he stood in pitch darkness. The donkey could not be seen anywhere.
“Moira? Where are you? Have you gone again?” All of a sudden he heard her beside him in the dark.
“Little brother, your tears have healed me. I have gained my balance.”
He felt her hand grasp his own.
“Now you may return to the living, and I will lead you partway.” She pulled him along, and he staggered into a stream that dropped deeper, and then she let go. He tried to swim, but the water sucked him down. He could not breathe. He was dying—down and through and out into daylight. He splashed onto the bank, and his body shivered, head to toe. He began rolling on the grassy bank, and all at once he rose up in a leap, and leaped again. He lifted one foot, then the other, one, and the other.
Then he collapsed on the bank, gasping and smiling, and his breathing settled little by little into humming. He was humming with a full heart beside this new stream, which had its own way of humming, a new stream that flowed out of the lower slope of Black Mountain. He slept there for a long time, until something nearby woke him. It was his horse, standing and waiting. He pulled himself onto its back, and it took him into the forest where he knew of roots and berries and nuts, enough to regain strength.
He hunted and roamed among the far hills, but he always returned to the mountain. New grass was growing on the slopes where there had been only black rocks. And one day he climbed again to the high ridge, but he heard no voices and never a donkey laughing.
Later he found a woman to love and live with, a woman with a ready smile, one who knew how to dance and sing. With her he began a new tribe along that stream and up those green slopes. And he called it Moira’s Mountain, and so it was known thereafter.